As some parts of the country brace themselves for more bone-chilling weather, plenty of Americans are looking to get away. But with the sinking economy on everyone’s minds, where can you go for a break, without breaking the bank? ASTA recently asked its travel agent members what they saw as the most budget-friendly destinations for travel in the United States in 2009. Not surprisingly, perennial favorites Las Vegas and Orlando/Disney World were ranked first and second, respectively, with Branson, Mo., New Orleans and Los Angeles rounding out the top five.

“Travel agents are experts at finding the best value for their clients,” said Chris Russo, ASTa president and chair. “When every penny counts, using the services of a professional ASTA travel agent can mean the difference between enjoying a vacation with friends and family or staying home.”

Travel agents cited Las Vegas’ multitude of choices in lodging and entertainment, competitive hotel prices and great bargains on airfare and dining. Not surprisingly, one of the reasons Orlando/Disney World sits among the top five budget-friendly destinations is the sheer number of package trips available and Disney’s “Kids Fly Free” packages. Branson, Mo., was rated highly for its senior-discount travel packages, as well as the fact that for many in the country it’s within driving distance.

New Orleans, too, made the top five list thanks to numerous travel packages at discounted prices that are available year-round and for special events such as Mardi Gras and other music and cultural festivals. Coming in at number five was Los Angeles, cited by ASTA travel agents as providing visitors with a host of options on everything from lodging to dining and entertainment.

Information courtesy of ASTA

The cold-blooded stare of alligators has an even icier look at Gatorland.

Four new reptilian residents there stand out: Ghostly white alligators — with steely blue eyes for extra eerie — are on exhibit at the Orlando attraction.

They’re more rare than they are spooky-looking. It is thought that a mere dozen of their kind survive — out of a total population of 5 million alligators in the United States. Their story begins in a Louisiana swamp and brings with it a legend of good fortune for folk who can make eye contact. The exhibit’s grand opening is Saturday.

In 1987, a fisherman discovered a nest of gator hatchlings — 17 of which were ivory white, not the usual dark skin tone. Chances for survival in the wild were slim because alligators’ coloring camouflages them from predators. White gators would be easy pickings. They were taken to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

These were not the more common pink-eyed albino gators, but are called leucistic (loo-SIS-tic), which is basically a genetic defect.

“Albinism is a complete lack of pigment through the skin of the animal,” said Steve Stiegler, an alligator biologist at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, based in Tallahassee. Leucistics sport some pigment and blue eyes.

Otherwise, they blend with the rest of the gator population.

“They’re alligators — they’re just a different color,” said Mike Hileman, Gatorland director of entertainment and adventure tours. “They have temperaments. Some of them have good attitudes, some of them have bad attitudes, and it changes day in and day out.”

At Gatorland, the four brothers have individual bachelor pads in a structure called the White Gator Swamp. Each cube features a dock, a water area and a mural depicting a Cajun scene. Glass separates visitors from gators. “We try to capture the feel of a nice swamp in here with the cypress logs all around and natural palm trees growing up through the middle and vegetation to kind of create that impact,” said Mark McHugh, president and CEO of Gatorland.

There’s no direct sunlight there. Prolonged exposure to UV rays would lead to dangerous sunburn and infection for the white alligators.

Three of them have been given Creole names — Bouya Blan (meaning white fog), Feros Zonbi (fierce ghost) and Jeyan Kwok (giant fang). The fourth will be named through a Gatorland contest.
Officials will exhibit the foursome through Labor Day. Eventually, they plan to breed the white gators with female gators that have normal coloring and the recessive gene. “They do it with many other [leucistic] reptiles, like snakes and lizards and so forth,” said Israel Dupont, owner of Crocodopolis, a business that specializes in education and entertainment with crocodilians. “It will be interesting to see what happens there.”

Louisiana legend has it that humans who stare into these alligators’ baby blues will receive good fortune. “I’m still waiting,” Hileman said. “I’ve been staring for weeks.”

Information courtesy of Orlando Sentinel

The following information was provided by the Orlando Entertainment Examiner:

It can be tough to come up with something special to show that someone special what they mean to you on Valentine’s Day. Not everyone wants to do the dinner, flowers, and chocolates thing. Maybe something unconventional is your forte? In a large city such as ours with something different around every corner, I have a few ideas to help you make Valentine’s Day a bit more special than just another Hallmark Holiday.

Fools for Love at SAK Comedy Lab is a great way for the couple that laughs together to spend the holiday. Admission is $15 or $25 Sweetheart Special for two (includes two bags of popcorn, candy hearts, and two small drinks). This date is much less expensive than a movie date and not only funnier but it will get you come bonus points for creativity.

A Valentine Stroll at Leu Gardens is a romantic and surefire way to make your Valentine melt. Pack a picnic (and an extra blanket since our night’s have been chilly), and enjoy the flowers, the stars and the live music of Ricky and the Buzzcatz, and the Julie Lyon Quartet.

Music in the Galleries (Morse Museum) is not only incredibly romantic, but a great idea for someone short on cash but not on love. This event is free (although it is on February 13) and blends the museums art with music by ‘Beautiful Music Muse Duo’, classical guitar and flute.

Sex and the Zoo (Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Garden) is for those Valentines who enjoy a little something risque’ and off the radar. Reservations for this event need to be made for seating and dinner. During your evening you will learn about the magnificent ways other animals reproduce. In addition, you can renew your vows with an on-site Reverend or Purchase your loved one a “Growl-in-tine” and receive a plush toy, a picture of a tiger, Zoo materials, and a certificate of adoption. Tickets for this cocktail attire event is $75 per couple and includes appetizers, dinner, two drinks per person, a fashion show by Fairvilla Megastore and good night gift bags to take home.

Diamond Rocks! No I’m not talking about the one you wear on your finger, I am talking about the one and only Neil Diamond. For any fans of Mr. Diamond, come out, “turn on your heart light,” and spend your Valentine’s Day at this tribute concert at the Plaza Theatre.

Vegan Valentine’s Dinner at Infusion Tea is a safe bet for the lovers who hold a special place in their heart for our four legged (and two legged) friends. This formal four course dinner is $39 per person and includes an organic/vegan dinner complete with wine pairings and tea.

Harbor Nights Romantico at Portofino Bay will allow you to feel like you’ve been whisked away to Italy without the huge bill. Spend the evening under the lights of the Harbor Piazza and enjoy sparkling wines, gourmet food samples, a chocolate station, live music by Nova Era and complimentary hand-rolled cigars. Prices are $35 or $60 VIP and this event occurs on Friday, February 13. Ciao Bella!

Last but not least is something for the movie lover or maybe just the Johnny Depp lover ( I am the latter). Edward Scissorhands is playing at the Enzian on Valentine’s Day and what better way to spend this holiday of love and all things pink and pretty than with a scarred, social outcast who cannot touch the one he loves? Perhaps one of Burton’s all-time best, Edward Scissorhands is a classic and such a fun, new way to spend this, sometimes, overrated holiday. This is an inexpensive and creative way to show your Valentine a good time and who doesn’t want to spend an evening with Johnny Depp?

No matter where you find yourself this Valentine’s Day, I hope it’s with someone you love. Whether it’s your boyfriend, girlfriend, roommate, sister, mother, dog, partner, wife, husband, I hope you have a fabulous time showing someone what they mean to you. Happy Valentine’s Day!